The Compass Rose Studio Theatre in Annapolis is the zealous undertaking of Lucinda Merry-Browne, who co-founded The Bay Theatre Company in Annapolis and was its Artistic Director and Managing Director for eight years. It is no small thing to start a theatre from scratch and build it up to a full-blown professional, Equity company. Obviously, she is not a lady to be underestimated.
Her real abiding passion, however, is for the “…art of theater as a learning experience for all ages.” The Miracle Worker is the second fully staged production at Compass Rose which offers a wide variety of workshops and classes to theater students of all ages, but it would seem with a particular emphasis toward youth. Ms. Merry-Browne, while intending to use students from the classes in the main stage shows as much as possible, also intends for the theatre’s productions to be “fully professional.”
It may be too early to say whether this ambitious experiment in serving two masters will succeed. Based purely on the quality of theatrical production demonstrated in The Miracle Worker, there is substantial room for improvement. It is hindered first and foremost by its physical limitations which are considerable. Crammed into a storefront in a strip mall with a stage that cannot be much larger than an average master bedroom, there is a serious question as to how ambitious the company should attempt to be.
The Miracle Worker has an abundance of scene changes and while the theme music for the show is well chosen and very pleasant, we spent much too much of the evening watching actors and a skeletal stage crew move furniture. It disrupts the flow and seems to have placed a premium on picking up cues and keeping the pace up once the action does resume. The end result is that The Miracle Worker, while showing promising signs of actors mastering their technique, is a show without a soul.
The Miracle Worker is as relevant and moving today as it was in 1959 when it garnered Tony Awards for the playwright William Gibson, as well as Anne Bancroft. There is a reason for that. It tells a powerful story of the importance of the inner life in a world where all too much emphasis is placed on appearances and reputations. It is based, as most everyone knows, on the life of Helen Keller who was to become a world-famous speaker and author in spite of having started her life blind, mute and severely hearing impaired. It is all about soul and, ultimately, about the miracle that within each human being burns a desire to learn and grow and know.
It is also a very well written piece of theatre with many poignant and deeply moving moments. Almost all those moments were lost in this tiny space. The primary culprit, other than the cumbersome scene changes, is the emphasis on keeping up the pace at the expense of nuance or variety or a well- placed pause here and there. There is a numbing sameness that characterizes two of the pivotal roles – Keller, the father and Annie Sullivan the teacher. Chris Briante as Keller plays much too big for the space and, in the immortal words of a well-known Broadway critic, runs the gamut of emotion from A to B. As written, he is mostly a bully and a hot head, but there are many, many ways to play against the type instead of leaning into it with a consistent angry bluster. Likewise, Colleen Marie Arnold as Annie relies almost exclusively on a rapid fire pace of speech and an all-too-quick reaction/response to whatever challenge is thrown her way. Used occasionally it can be effective. Employed repetitiously, it becomes tiresome.
The most believable parts of the play are the scenes in which Annie stubbornly sticks to her guns in taming Helen’s wild anger. She clearly recognizes it as frustration with not having the ability to communicate and that the remedy lies in discipline and persistence. Sixth grader Annalie Ellis is a completely convincing Helen and her transformation at the end of the show should bring tears by the buckets. Unfortunately, everything up to that point has not been authentic enough to make it the moment it was written to be.
Rebecca Dreyfuss as Helen’s mother, Kate, and Jonathan Ezra Rubin as Helen’s half-brother, James, both bring some refreshing variety and heart to their roles. But they also fall victim to the racing pacing that overshadows most of the evening. Kate is James’ step-mother and he shows the pain of being without his real mother in his disdain for his father and his shunning of Kate. They have their moment, a very touching moment, when James allows his need for some kind of loving parent to overcome his bitterness with Kate and asks sincerely to be her friend. Dreyfuss barely acknowledges the moment with any eye contact and throws her compassionate response away in the hustle and bustle to move on to the next scene.
Compass Rose is clearly a work in progress and deserves to be given every chance at succeeding with their enterprising mission. The danger in attempting to serve two masters is serving neither one of them well, but Ms. Merry-Brown has already shown herself to be undaunted in the face of audacious challenges. Give her company some time and a theatre space sufficient to house their ambitions and magic could happen. Let’s hope it does.
The Miracle Worker
By William Gibson
Directed by Lucinda Merry-Browne
Produced by Compass Rose Studio Theater
Reviewed by Larry Bangs
Running time: Two hours including one 10 minute intermission